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Cool, wet spring slows crops


A center pivot sprinkler irrigates an alfalfa field in Baker Valley. For agriculture, it is difficult to ever experience a “normal” weather year. That’s especially true in Oregon with such a diversity of commodities, topography, and microclimates. But there is little doubt that the state, like much of the rest of the nation, has significantly strayed from what is usually expected. (S. John Collins, WesCom News Service)

As the calendar flips to June, it comes as no surprise to Oregonians that spring 2017 has generally been cooler and wetter than average. Up until the last couple of weeks, there had only been eight days this spring in which the statewide temperature topped 64 degrees. The combination of cool temperatures and rainy weather delayed many farmers around Oregon from preparing the fields and planting while pushing back the early growth and development of crops.

“The situation varies around the state,” said Casey Prentiss, field operations manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Inspection Program. “The farther east you go, the farther behind the crops are. But statewide, the volume is expected to be at least average and the quality should be there as well. It’s just that the crops are generally going to be later than normal.”

For agriculture, it is difficult to ever experience a “normal” weather year. That’s especially true in Oregon with such a diversity of commodities, topography, and microclimates. But there is little doubt that the state, like much of the rest of the nation, has significantly strayed from what is usually expected.

Prentiss said it’s Oregon’s inability to transition to warmer temperatures and drier days that separates this spring from most. That’s especially true for Malheur County, which suffered from winter storm damage due t o heavy snow and what it left behind.

“This year, some onions won’t get planted because of flooding, last year some onions didn’t get planted because of drought,” Prentiss said. “It’s a feast or famine situation in that part of the state.”

Statewide, there have been six consecutive months of above average precipitation. Temperatures were generally down slightly in April and in May up until the last week, when weather was ideal for planting and field work. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, most counties in Oregon are behind by at least a week from their normal planting schedules.

As always, agricultural producers in certain parts of Oregon are faring better than others. But in general, tillage, planting, and other field work earlier this spring ranged from slow to impossible as cold, wet weather persisted. Fertilizing and spraying activities have been challenging. Many vegetable crops were late going into the ground which could result in a late harvest this year. Fruit trees and berry crops have been in various stages of bloom throughout the Willamette Valley but, in most cases, are also behind schedule. Even livestock is impacted as cold and wet conditions have slowed pasture growth in many locations.

As in the case of Malheur County, some problems can be traced back to the beginning of winter. Incredibly, 38 inches of snow fell in a series of storms that left the region with collapsed buildings, particularly onion sheds, and area-wide flooding once the snow melted.

“By far, this has been one of the most challenging springs we’ve had in a long time,” said Cassandra Lighten of ODA’s shipping point program office in Ontario. “Everyone is still cleaning out winter damage. For crops, we usually get early onions planted at the end of February or early March. This year, onions didn’t get planted until the start of April and some growers were still planting in late April. Quite a few places didn’t get anything planted due to the earlier flooding. On average, onions are about six to eight weeks behind.”

Nonetheless, the expected volume of onions produced this year should be near normal after last year’s oversupply. Meanwhile, other Malheur County crops are lagging as well. Potatoes for processing are about 18 days behind schedule and hay is about 10 days later than usual. Recent hailstorms have caused damage to some sugar beets. The area doesn’t have too many orchards, but tree damage will severely limit the amount of local fresh fruit that would otherwise be available.

Other parts of the state are having similar concerns about the lateness of crops.

“One of our potato growers down here is just starting to plant right now, about three weeks behind schedule,” ODA’s Rhonda Murray, district manager in Klamath Falls/Medford, said.

On the other hand, spring precipitation has provided lush pasture grass for grazing cattle entering the summer.

In the Columbia Gorge where tree fruit reigns, crops seem late when compared to last year. But 2016 was somewhat of an early season in the area, especially for cherries.

“The first day of packing fresh cherries last year was May 31, but the earliest start we expect this year is about June 15, which is closer to a normal year,” says district manager Kathy Boland-Phelps in Hood River. “Now we just have to hope for no rain as those cherries ripen.”

Production in the Willamette Valley, like the rest of the state, is a week or two behind schedule.

“Strawberries come first each year, many times in late May,” says district manager Kevin Bailey. “This year, it looks like the middle of June before harvest begins. For blueberries, the magic date this year is July 1, which may be slightly behind. We will have a fairly normal volume of crops, but need to wait longer for them.”

The one area of the state that seems to be running on schedule is northeast Oregon, particularly Umatilla County. District manager Pete Veliz in Hermiston says once the weather started cooperating earlier in May, everybody got busy and everything caught up.

“Potatoes got a late start in planting but are pretty much on schedule. We will start a new crop of fresh onions on June 15, right on schedule. Onions for processing may be about 10 days behind. Our apple crop in Milton-Freewater is within 10 days of normal and mellon growers report being right on schedule.”

For essentially all of Oregon, the winter and spring produced a silver lining in the clouds. Water supply for irrigation is exceptional with well-stocked reservoirs and healthy streamflow forecasts.

Of course, there is plenty of time for the weather to give a helping hand in the form of warm, dry days.

“Mother nature has a way of getting Oregon agriculture back on schedule,” Prentiss said.